Curling has several challenges to overcome as sport looks ahead to next season

Curling has several challenges to overcome as sport looks ahead to next season

Before the pandemic hit, the last great Canadian sporting hurrah was one of the strongest editions of the Tim Hortons Brier in recent memory.

Fans would pack Kingston’s Leon’s Centre for games and then jam “The Patch” party tent across the road afterward, often keeping the festivities going into the wee hours.

It’s one of many grand traditions of the Roaring Game that could be in for a big change when curling eventually returns.

Curlers can say goodbye to pre-game handshakes. Empty stands will be a possibility at top events. International team participation could be at a premium at Canadian tour stops.

There are no firm answers right now and it’s unknown when that will change.

Bonspiel organizer Gerry Geurts, who operates the CurlingZone website that manages world rankings and team point systems, said next season’s uncertainty poses a significant challenge.

“It’s going to be a hit for the (curling) clubs and the events,” Geurts said from London, Ont. “But the teams have to have the expectation that they’re going to take a bit of a hit at the same time too.”

The current off-season essentially kicked off in mid-March after the women’s world championship was scrubbed. Normally play would pick up again in late summer, but even an autumn start looks questionable at the moment.

COVID-19 developments are forcing the sports world to take a cautious approach to the potential return of competition.

Curling has a few notable challenges to overcome when it’s ready to come back. At the top of the list are sponsorship concerns, travel restrictions and event feasibility.

“Some of those small- and medium-sized businesses that support local teams are going to have a harder time doing it,” reigning Brier champ Brad Gushue said from St. John’s, N.L. ”Even some of the higher-profile teams that have the national sponsorships, it’s a hard market to go out and look for that to fund your season. So a whole lot of uncertainty.”

Naturally the safety of athletes, spectators, volunteers and event staff in clubs and arenas will be paramount when play resumes.

But who knows when the ice will even be ready? Many curling clubs may have to delay season openings depending on their location and situation.

Event sponsors may not be back and filling out tournament draws may be tough. Travel restrictions and quarantine guidelines could still be in place, which may limit options for international or out-of-province teams.

Several early-season events on the World Curling Tour’s 2020-21 campaign have already been cancelled and that list could grow.

“I think events that rely on TV (revenue) have the best chance of survival and then the events that just don’t have a high overhead have the best chance of success,” Geurts said. “Those are your regional tour events generally. It’s that middle tier I’m really concerned about.

“But at the same time, ideally, we’re only looking at one season. So even if some of these events just take a hiatus, we’re hoping that come a year from now, they’re back in play again.”

The first big event of the curling season is the Masters in October. A Sportsnet spokesperson said via email that there were no updates to share regarding the 2020-21 Grand Slam schedule at this time.

Meanwhile, Curling Canada’s Season of Champions schedule kicks off a month after that with the Canada Cup.

The Scotties Tournament of Hearts goes in late February and the Brier is set for early March.

“We continue to work with our stakeholders and our partners in planning those events,” Curling Canada CEO Katherine Henderson said from Toronto. “But we are very carefully monitoring what’s going on almost on a daily basis to make sure that we’re making decisions and choices about events going forward that’s based on the best information that we have at the time.”

One of curling’s selling points is that unlike other sports, fans get a chance to be “up close and personal” with the athletes. The slogan is promoted on everything from TV spots to autograph sessions.

Expect that tagline to be shelved for at least a season or two.

Another change will be made at the bar. Cold beer is as much a part of curling culture as a skip yelling out of the hack. Adjustments to party tents and spectator drinking areas can be expected.

“You’re just not going to be comfortable getting into a situation where you go into a room full of a thousand strangers and have a beer,” said Sportsnet curling commentator Mike Harris. “It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen anymore.

“So curling for the next year, certainly this coming season, those rules have changed.”

Many WCT bonspiels are held at curling clubs that rely on bar and food sales as key revenue sources. Limited attendance and physical distancing would have a significant impact on their bottom line.

Geurts said he foresees more of a focus on regional competition next season, one of many potential adjustments that could be forthcoming.

“There may have to be a small fee that goes towards the clubs from each (team) entry fee that supports the lack of fans, the lack of crowds, the lack of other revenues,” he said.

For top-flight events, time is on the organizers’ side — for now. But decisions will have to be made over the next few months about whether competitions will be held and if fans will be allowed in.

“It’s kind of a made-for-TV property, curling is perfect for that,” Harris said from Toronto. “I think the challenge would be filling the fields. I think the first couple (Slams) might just be Canadian teams. That’s kind of what I would foresee but I think it’s really too early to tell.”

The 2020-21 curling season is a big one as teams continue efforts to lock down berths and accumulate points to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 18 months time.

But when that pursuit will resume remains unknown.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2020.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

curling

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

There were 410 COVID-19 cases recorded in Alberta Wednesday. (File photo)
Alberta records 410 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday

Central zone dropped to 160 active cases

Shaun Isaac, owner of Woodchucker Firewood in Trochu, is awaiting a new shipment during a firewood shortage in the province. All of the wood he has left is being saved for long-time customers who need it to heat their homes. (Contributed photo).
Firewood shortage in central Alberta caused by rising demand, gaps in supply

‘I’ve said “No” to more people than ever’: firewood seller

Sharon Hickin, general manager of the Days Inn Sylvan Lake and the new Lake House Diner, poses for a photo outside the new restaurant. Photo by Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News
Pandemic puts extra hurdles in place for new Sylvan Lake businesses

Over the past seven months numerous new businesses have opened in Sylvan Lake, despite the pandemic

Sylvan Lake Wranglers. File Photo
Sylvan Lake Wranglers ready for shorten hockey season

The HJHL will have a 20 game season, playing four games in a cohort and then going dark for 14 days

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta labour board orders health-care staff who walked off the job to go back to work

Finance Minister Travis Toews said in a news release that he was pleased with the labour board’s decision

Husky Energy logo is shown at the company’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Husky pipeline spills 900,000 litres of produced water in northwestern Alberta

The energy regulator says environmental contractors are at the site

A raccoon paid a visit to a Toronto Tim Hortons on Oct. 22, 2020. (shecallsmedrew/Twitter)
Who are you calling a trash panda? Raccoon takes a shift at Toronto Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons said animal control was called as soon they saw the surprise visitor

file photo
Maskwacis RCMP investigate pedestrian fatality

Collision on Highway 2A causing fatality still under investigation.

Rachel Notley, leader of Alberta’s official Opposition, speaks in Edmonton on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Notley says the government needs to sharply ramp up the number of contact tracers if it wants to get a handle on the rising number of COVID-19 cases. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Opposition calls for more COVID-19 contact tracers as case numbers rise

Alberta has about 800 tracers, and chief medical health officer Dr. Hinshaw says more are being recruited

Royal Alexandra Hospital front-line workers walk a picket line after walking off the job in a wildcat strike in Edmonton, on Monday, October 26, 2020. Hospital and health-care workers who staged a one-day illegal walkout returned to work Tuesday while politicians swapped recriminations and accusations in the house over the dispute. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta health staff return to work, surgeries resume after one-day walkout

AHS estimated 157 non-emergency surgeries, most of them in Edmonton, had to be postponed as a result of the walkout

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to provide an update on the COVID pandemic in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Canada has reached a grim milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic, surpassing 10,000 novel coronavirus deaths. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Alberta COVID deaths pushes Canada past milestone of 10,000 deaths

Canada crossed the threshold of 5,000 deaths on May 12, a little over two months after the first was reported

Cases in Ponoka (East Ponoka County) as of Oct. 27. (alberta.ca)
Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 at three Ponoka businesses

Town ‘strongly encouraging’ residents to wear non-medical masks in public

Most Read